Guantanamo Report: Will Judge Parrella Recuse Himself From 9/11 Trial?

U.S. v. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, et al., Motions Hearing at Guantanamo Bay culminated today with the defense calling a newly appointed military judge COL Keith Parrella to recuse himself. 

It’s a rainy Monday, September 10, 2018, on a military base in Ft Meade. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will mark 17 years since  9/11. 

As I’ve found myself next to Greg Myer in a closed-circuit TV inside Ft Meade for the U.S. v. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, et al., Motions Hearing, it was discouraging to see that we are still without a set date for the trail. As of today, this will be the 31st set of hearings that will be taking place from September 10th to 14th at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay.

A newly appointed judge Marine COL Keith A. Parrella began the hearing by introducing himself. He is the one who will have a possibility to overturn the most significant rulings of his predecessor. Namely, his order to exclude from evidence FBI interrogations from 2006 and 2007, most of which were conducted after detainees were transferred from secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo.

Parrella was detailed on the 9/11 capital punishment case on August 27, 2018, and since then has been trying to get to speed with the extensive court documents related to it.  

In the courtroom, the accused, KSM, sat dressed in a khaki jacket accompanied with an elegant white scarf with lavender colored ornaments. Terror architect, who admitted that he was “responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z”, also claimed responsibility for the death of a journalist, Daniel Pearl. By a strange game of faith, Pearl was brought to Pakistan thinking that he will interview Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani in Karachi but was instead kidnapped. In 2002, KSM personally beheaded Pearl, a practice of killing journalists nowadays largely practiced by ISIS.

Another defendant, Mustafa al Hawsawi was also present in the courtroom, but at the first opportunity to talk said that: “I heard my entire rights and I have the right to leave”.

To that, Judge Parrella countered: “I understand what you are saying, but it’s not going to happen.” With that, Parrella made clear that he would continue military judge Pahl’s practice of requiring the accused to be present in the first sessions.  

Who wants to question a new judge?

As the hearing moved forward, Jim P. Harrington,  defense lawyer for Ramzi bin al Shibh brought attention to the “unexpected twists and turns”, in 9/11 capital punishment case, that dealt with issues that go back to 2014 in reference to the Department of Justice special review team. The problem at hand: much of the information is classified.

What does Parrella know about Islam?

Defense lawyer David Nevin, on behalf of KSM, opened the line of questioning reminding everyone present in the courtroom that his client is a devout Muslim. “What knowledge do you have of the religion of Islam?” Nevin asked the new judge.

Parrilla said that there is nothing about his personal beliefs in Islam that would affect the trial. Nevin went on to ask about religious courses Parrilla took but the Judge responded that he does not have any sort of special knowledge in Islam and reiterated that he does hold any personal beliefs in Islam.

Where was judge Parrilla on September 11, 2001?

A defense lawyer for KSM wanted to know where Parrilla was on September 11, 2001. The judge said that he was in California. He was supposed to fly to San Diego but the plane never took off as the terminal was already shut down when he arrived. At that time he was stationed at Miramar, at a regional defense counsel.

The defense lawyer of KSM went on to ask if anyone in Parrilla’s 3rd circle was affected by 9/11. “I do not have any friends who I would say were victims”, he responded. He added that Robert Hoge, his boss, counsel to the commandment of Marine Corps was injured but that they did not have a personal relationship.

How does Parrella feel about 9/11?

Defense lawyer James P. Harrington challenged Parrlilla’s alleged bias and his recollection of his personal feelings on  9/11 2001. “It is hard to believe that someone who has served in the Marine Corps did not have strong feelings", Harrington said.

“There is nothing about my experience either on 9/11 or since, that causes me to believe I cannot be impartial and unbiased with regards to this commission”, the judge in question stated.

Parrella said that 9/11 was a long time ago and that he cannot recollect any personal feelings at the time or the need for retribution.

Is judge Parrilla qualified and impartial?

The defense has been hitting hard on Judge Parrelli’s impartiality and qualifications. Nevin grilling a new judge was hard to watch. KSM’s lawyer acted as if Judge Parrilla was in an exam, asking him how much court material he had read. “I have done everything I could to ensure to be able to preside over the issues”, he responded.

In light of the facts that a new judge did not conduct any reading materials until August 2018, Nevin said he wanted to understand what his state of knowledge is. To that Parrilla pushed back stating that it was not relevant to his impartiality of the case. The new judge insists that he has been detailed by a competent authority.

The official biography of Keith A. Parrilla states that in 1992 he graduated from law school. His legal education lasted three years. Nevin immediately wanted to understand how long Parrilla had spent as a trial lawyer and a military judge. The judge pushed back stating that he had six years of litigation experience and over one hundred trials to verdict.

As a CMC Fellow, Lieutenant Colonel Parrella worked in the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) National Security Division as a Counterterrorism Prosecutor and with the Office for Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training (OPDAT) within DOJ’s Criminal Division.

“It is just not qualifications, it also about the grounds for disqualifications”, Nevin said in a new attempt to undermine a newly appointed judge.

A question whether Parrilla had sufficient experience to execute the duties of the military judge was raised again. “It is an extraordinary case and the one who is leaving has decades of experience”, Nevin tried to justify his line of questioning.

“I am not going to go down the rabbit hole of discussing my qualifications”,  Parella argued. He insisted that he meets qualifications and while he is aware that his experience is not to the extent of Judge Pahl’s, the fact is, that same judge had selected him for this role.

This is a capital punishment case

Defense attorney James Connell who represents Ammar al Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, wanted to know if Parrella has any strong feelings on capital punishment. His client, al Baluchi, spent years at CIA black sites and before his transfer to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006  was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Defense repeated several times that “this is a death penalty case”, and reiterated a concern that Judge Parrilla never went through training of capital cases. ”I do not believe that I am unqualified,” Parrilla stood his ground. Despite the fact that this is the first time for a new judge to be at Guantanamo Bay, he said that he feels confident that he can deal with the challenge that is placed upon him. Parrilla also said that he does not have any strong views on capital punishment.

Did anyone say torture?

Parrella was asked if he had any knowledge of the CIA torture program. He was specifically asked if he had read the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture.

Parrella said that he did not have any knowledge of the existence of the torture program and he dodged to answer the question fully. It would be hard not to know that this issue is a slippery slope for any military judge presiding over this case.

Cliffhanger: Will Judge Parrilla recuse himself?

As Nevin returned on the hardline, it became immediately apparent that he will go on the attack. He was brief and to the point: Parrilla should recuse himself or at least abate.

His call for recusal is based upon the fact that Parrella will leave in a year (on June 1, 2019, he will become Colonel commander of the Marine command overseeing US Embassies around the world)  and that he served at DoJ in the same counter-terrorism division with the prosecution of this case. Nevin was blunt in saying that he wanted to protect the interests of KSM.

Like the rest of the defense team, Connel did not spare Parrilla either. He said that he would like to investigate his connection to DoJ more. So far, he said, he has only conducted a: ”google level investigation”, but he is eager to look deeper and find new facts.

Jim Harrington also took a swipe at Parilla asking him to recuse, specifically pointing to his alleged bias in reference to a statement about a lack of recollection about his emotional response on September 11, 2001.

Prosecutor Clay Trivett pushed back against the defense’s call for recusal stating that there are no legal grounds for Parrella to do so.

After a short recess, judge Parrella said that he won’t be making any decision about his recusal today. He said that he will take into consideration the arguments defense presented and "sleep on it". He flipped the schedule for tomorrow’s hearing announcing that the opening session will begin at 9 am and a classified, closed one at 2 pm. Whatever happens next on the anniversary of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in US history, one thing is guaranteed, we are still without a trial date.    

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